Anwar Ibrahim once seemed a certainty to rule Malaysia. Then came his arrest and imprisonment. Now, with his party shaking up the establishment, is he set to finally fulfil his ambition? By Mark Baker.
Rabble rousing … Anwar Ibrahim on the hustings in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Austral Press
It's nearing midnight in Penang. In a park surrounded by decaying concrete apartment blocks, a swelling crowd waits patiently amid the sticky heat and pungent aromas of food stalls, traffic fumes and open drains. This is a poor Malay neighbourhood, but there are Chinese and Indians here, too, a representative cross-section of multiracial Malaysia.
Suddenly a slim figure in dark trousers and white shirt emerges from the darkness through a side gate and the crowd erupts in jubilation, clapping, cheering and sounding horns. A squad of armed security men guides him through the crush and up towards the fluorescent glare of a makeshift stage. "There have been attacks by provocateurs at other meetings. We have to be careful," says a senior aide.
Anwar Ibrahim sits down briefly on the rough grass among the sweating youths in the front rows. He then mounts the stage, takes a microphone and steps back down to stand facing the crowd. "I will stay down here. This is better," he says. The audience roars approval at the intimacy of his gesture. "The time has come for change," he declares. "We can create a new environment. We can change the political landscape of this country. We can end the corruption, the cronyism, the wasteful spending. Enough! Enough! Enough!"
Friends in high places … Anwar (at left) with his then mentor Mahathir Mohamad (at right) in 1997. Photo: AFP
The day after this, thousands of people bussed in from across peninsular Malaysia will assemble in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur to hear a formal speech by Prime Minister Najib Razak, head of the Barisan Nasional coalition government. They will all have party-issued gift bags and party-issued "We Love BN" banners, and they will all applaud on cue for national TV. But tonight Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia's tri-party opposition alliance, is giving a one-man show and no one has been paid to come.
He has no prepared speech. He speaks with passion from a script lived hard over long years of imprisonment and political exile. But there is no bitterness to it. Anwar jokes and teases the crowd and they lap it up.
He quotes Lincoln on the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. He sings unaccompanied a version of a popular Malay song about trees shaking in the wind. But this time it's Najib who is shaking - to winds of change being fanned by Anwar Ibrahim. The assembled crowd reverberates with laughter.
Black and blue … the black eye inflicted on Anwar in custody by police chief Rahim Noor in 1998.
The journey to this moment began 15 years ago when Anwar, then Malaysia's deputy prime minister, anointed successor to Mahathir Mohamad, and one of the rising stars of Asian politics, was abruptly sacked by his mentor and accused of corruption and sex offences. Then came prison, two trials, a further ban from political office and unending vilification by former friends and colleagues. That journey will reach a conclusion on Sunday, May 5, when Malaysians vote in the most closely fought election since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957.
In January last year, Anwar returned to the austere chambers of Kuala Lumpur's High Court for the conclusion of his second trial on charges of sexual misconduct. He arrived to find the court registrar and her deputy in tears. "We will pray for you, sir," they whispered to him.
The women, like many of Anwar's supporters, were convinced the charges were politically motivated and that his conviction was inevitable. The accusation that Anwar had had sex with a former male aide was raised just months after the opposition scored big gains in the 2008 national elections and as Anwar prepared to return to parliament in a by-election.
Flying the flag … Malaysian PM Najib Razak in 2012.Photo: AFP
But the verdict, after an exhausting two-year trial, was to shock everyone. Justice Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah stepped into the court and spoke for just 90 seconds. He declared DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution to be unreliable and acquitted Anwar. "Thank God it didn't succeed," says Anwar. "That would have been the finish for me. Everyone was convinced I would be convicted and I still don't know why I wasn't. Maybe it was the judge's conscience in the end."
There was no such judicial introspection a decade earlier, when Anwar was convicted and jailed on charges that he and his supporters insist were fabricated.
The relationship between Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister and his deputy fell apart in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As finance minister, Anwar had committed to austerity measures suggested by the Inter-national Monetary Fund to rescue the battered Malaysian economy. But Mahathir claimed the cause of the problem was a conspiracy by global financiers and backed a slew of lavish bailouts for failing Malaysian corporations, including his son's shipping company. Anwar also upset Mahathir by moving to tackle widespread corruption in the government and embracing political and social reform, as many Malaysians cheered the unrest that brought down the Suharto regime in Indonesia in May 1998.
Pucker up … young boys kiss the hand of Anwar in his Penang electorate. Photo: Vincent Thian
Mahathir abruptly sacked Anwar that September. Three days later, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the biggest protest rally in Malaysia's history as more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in support of Anwar. Malaysia's reformasi movement was born.
That night, Anwar was arrested and detained. A week later he appeared in court with a black eye, the result of a beating in prison by police inspector general Rahim Noor (Rahim was later jailed for two months for the assault). He was eventually sentenced to six years' jail for abusing his ministerial position by directing police special branch officers to pressure witnesses to retract allegations that he'd had sex with his family's driver and an illicit affair with the wife of his private secretary (both homosexuality and adultery remain criminal offences in Malaysia). A subsequent trial saw him also convicted for the sexual offences themselves.
The verdicts were later upheld on appeal to the Federal Court. This was despite evidence that Anwar's driver had three times denied having sex with his employer and compelling evidence that police had threatened witnesses and manipulated evidence. The appeal judges also ignored an admission by police special branch chief Mohamad Said bin Awang that in 1997 - a year before Anwar's sacking - he had sent a report to Mahathir dismissing the allegations of sexual misconduct as a whispered smear campaign.
Anwar says his time in prison and subsequent years in which he was barred from political office have strengthened his resolve to see fundamental change in Malaysia. He wants to free Malaysia's government-controlled mainstream media.
He wants to restore the independence of the judiciary and the bureaucracy and to make the security services accountable. And he wants to end a culture of endemic corruption and cronyism.
"The last 15 years have certainly changed me," he says. "You talk about freedom or reform. It is not the same when you actually understand what it is to be denied your freedom. My passion for justice is far more pronounced now. In prison I saw so many guys who were beaten up, black eyes, but they were never reported in the media. I was fortunate that the whole world saw what happened to me. I knew, when I saw it happening to so many others, that I can't allow this to continue."
Anwar, now 65, is not bitter that he has had to wait so long for a chance to claim the leadership position that he was poised to inherit when Mahathir retired in 2003. Unlike many of his supporters, he says he has forgiven Mahathir for orchestrating his political downfall. This is despite the continuing attacks on his character from the elder statesman and his successors in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition.
"Mahathir, in a sober moment, did say once [to the UMNO leaders], after the second trial, 'Why do you use the same script as me? The way it was done, the sodomy charge, you should not use the same script twice.' But I don't want this to be seen as a sort of Anwar-Mahathir battle. It's not personal. To me, he is obsolete, except to defend the business interests of his children. What else does he do? Does he talk about reform? He is just defending his own policies; he wants to maintain his legacy. But beyond that, it's just about his family."
He says the 87-year-old Mahathir only retains influence within UMNO because of its weak leadership. "They feared him when he was in power but that is no longer so."
Anwar Ibrahim may have rising popular support on his side in his quest to end UMNO's 56-year reign, but everything else seems stacked heavily against him: a ruling elite that will spend whatever it takes to preserve its power and perks; a government that is in pork-barrelling overdrive to shore up its position; an electoral system corrupted by the mother of all gerrymanders.
All of Malaysia's mainstream media is either owned or controlled by the government. The judiciary is subservient to the executive. The bureaucracy - and particularly the police and internal security agencies - is deeply politicised. Key figures in the government and their business backers have built fortunes through patronage and corrupt deals. Malaysia has been ranked the third-worst country in the world for illicit capital outflows, with about $25 billion a year being illegally siphoned out of the country.
The government has been shameless in seeking to buy electoral favour. More than 20 per cent of the country's budget is spent on consumer subsidies, including about $8 billion a year on keeping petrol prices down. Twice in recent months the government has given 500 ringgit ($155) cash handouts to lower-income families and it has promised the money will keep rolling after the election. The day before he dissolved parliament, Najib announced a 1000 ringgit ($310) bonus for every employee of the state oil company, Petronas - and told them they should repay the generosity by voting the government back in.
Malaysia has an electoral gerrymander that would have drawn a blush to the cheeks of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who ruled Queensland long after his party had ceased attracting anything like a majority of votes. At the 2008 national election, Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat coalition won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote but took just 82 seats in the 222-seat parliament. The government held the rural seat of Putrajaya with just 6008 votes while the opposition needed 112,000 votes to take the urban seat of Kapar, in Selangor state.
Analysis by Bersih, the Malaysian corruption and election watchdog, has found that the gerry-mander means it is feasible for the ruling coalition to achieve a simple majority in parliament with as little as 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.
Bersih chair and former Malaysian Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan says the electoral rolls have been corrupted, with hundreds of thousands of migrants from Indonesia and the Philippines being given identity cards to bolster support for UMNO. "We have real concerns and the failure of the Electoral Commission to do anything about it is deeply worrying," she says.
Despite these obstacles, the 2008 national elections were a watershed that saw the UMNO-led coalition lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since independence. The opposition parties, forever the fringe dwellers of Malaysian politics, proved themselves a viable alternative, also winning control of five state governments. The result has convinced Anwar he can win this time. Private government polling is said to point to a potential swing of 7 per cent to the opposition, and political analysts believe that if the opposition gets more than 100 seats they will be able to horse-trade with minor parties to secure a parliamentary majority.
"All we need is a few percentage points more,'' says Anwar. ''Was there gerrymandering in 2008? Yes. Was there a fraudulent process then? Yes. Were the entire resources of government used? Yes. Will they use more money this time? Yes, because we have done more to criticise and expose the cronyism and the billionaires. They are being named. But I still believe we can do it."
He expects a tough and dirty campaign but is encouraged by Najib's comment to journalists after dissolving parliament that the government will ensure a smooth transition if it loses. "For the first time we have a prime minister saying that he will surrender power peacefully in the event that the opposition wins the election. This means a lot because what he said goes down to the security apparatus, the police and the army. It should influence the way they behave."
Anwar believes that message will be reinforced by the fact that the opposition has won the backing of several top-ranking military officers, including former army chief Hashim Hussein, who will be one of its candidates in Johor. He says the government's decision to stretch its five-year term to the limit proves it is worried. "They are not confident," says Anwar.
"Although technically it is legal, morally it is unacceptable. They are very nervous."
The opposition's prospects have also been boosted by a surge in the number of younger Malaysians who will vote for the first time in this election. More than three million of them have been added to the electoral rolls, a 25 per cent increase in the voting population since 2008. The explosion in social media and independent news websites means younger Malaysians are better informed than their parents' generation. "The opposition has the upper hand in the social-media wars and it is likely to be a big factor in this election," says Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, the country's most popular news website and a tough critic of the government.
At Friday prayers in the village of Sama Gagah, in the heart of his Penang electorate, Anwar Ibrahim holds court in a small, crowded mosque. He wears flowing Malay robes and a black felt songkok. The men embrace him and the young boys pay obeisance, kissing his hand before touching it with their foreheads.
His address is a deft blend of politics and piety. "As good Muslims we cannot be corrupt. We must purify our hearts and souls to do good to people. Even though we are in an election campaign we must respect others. We have to follow the path of God."
He talks of his time in prison. "That was God's test of me. And I thank God for that time to obtain virtue and knowledge. It gave me time to study the Koran. Although people slandered me and falsely accused me, I did not retaliate. I had faith in God and I came through it."
Critics fear an Anwar government would steer Malaysia down a more radical Islamic path. His coalition includes the fundamentalist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the opposition platform would allow a greater role for shariah law in Malay Muslim communities.
Anwar began his political career as a firebrand student activist, co-founding the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia in 1971 and serving as president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students. His first taste of prison came in 1974, when he was jailed for 20 months under the Internal Security Act - which allowed detention without trial - for leading student protests against rural poverty. Anwar retains the respect of many conservative Malay Muslims and their leaders. "I am very Malay, very Muslim in my views," he says. But he is as much a political secularist and pragmatic internationalist as he is a man of faith.
He attended the prestigious, anglophile Malay College Kuala Kangsar in Perak - known as "the Eton of the East" - and is still fond of Shakespeare and English literature. Western leaders who became friends during his time as finance minister admired him as an intellectual, someone willing and able to straddle the divide between East and West. Anwar has also championed the role of women in Malaysian politics and the opposition is fielding a much stronger team of female candidates in this election than the government. His wife, Dr Wan Azizah, ran his party and held his seat in parliament during his political exile, and his daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, is an impressive young MP tipped as a future leader.
If he wins next Sunday, Anwar is confident effective democracy and clean government can be restored in Malaysia without major upheaval. He says there is no comparison with the challenges faced in countries such as Tunisia, which he visited soon after its liberation in the Arab Spring.
"We still have a functioning civil service, even though it is getting more decadent compared with the level of professionalism in the past. We have an army that is not too political and we have police, some of whom can remain quite professional. The economy has growth of about 5 per cent, which could be better but is okay."
Anwar promises to abolish all controls on the media and to end the use of the courts to hound political critics and rivals. Harder will be the task of tackling corruption and dealing with those "who have stolen billions". He says that while serious crimes must be dealt with, he doesn't want retributive justice and is prepared to forgive lesser transgressions.
Beyond the glitter of the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur and the brash modernity of the country's federal administrative centre, Putrajaya, Malaysia remains a country with vast disparities between rich and poor. Many Malays in rural areas and members of the minority Indian community live below the local poverty line of 700 ringgit ($220) a month. Anwar seethes at the injustice. "There is still abject poverty," he says. "Infant mortality among the Penan people in Sarawak is among the highest in Asia and this in our richest state, where the leaders plunder billions annually."
As we drive towards another night rally, Anwar winds down his window to greet and touch hands with the cheering supporters lining the road. "I am blessed that people continue to give me their support and hope. Their affection keeps me going. The rural areas have never been our stronghold but now we are seeing signs of growing support. Some are influenced by the incessant propaganda in the media and by all the cash handouts, but many are fed up with it all."
Anwar knows the obstacles to victory, but believes they can and will be overcome. "I mean, how much can they cheat? I genuinely believe I can do it. I have the wisdom, the hindsight of prison, the experience of government that helps ensure I can lead this country and, damn it, I want to prove it."
With that, he steps from the car and is consumed by another sea of jubilant supporters, for whom an Anwar victory would mean as much as it does for the man who has travelled so far and so hard to reach this moment.